There's more than a dash of humour in Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix's take on the French military star-turned-emperor, which marks the pair's first collaboration since 'Gladiator'.
Sarah Ward
Published on November 23, 2023


When is a Ridley Scott-directed, Joaquin Phoenix-starring trip to the past more than just a historical drama? Always, at least so far. Twice now, the filmmaker and actor have teamed up to explore Europe centuries ago, initially with Gladiator and now 23 years later with Napoleon — and where the Rome-set first was an action film as well, the second fancies its chances as a sometimes comedy. This biopic of the eponymous French military star-turned-emperor can be funny. In the lead, Phoenix (Beau Is Afraid) repeatedly boasts the line delivery, facial expressions and physical presence of someone actively courting laughs. When he declares "destiny has brought me this lamb chop!", all three coalesce. Scott (House of Gucci) not only lets the humour land, but fashions this muskets-and-cannons epic as a satire of men with authority and dominance, their egos, and the fact that ruling a country and defeating other nations doesn't cancel out their pettiness and insecurities. 

As it's off with Marie Antoinette's (Catherine Walker, My Sailor, My Love) head, it's in with Napoleon's revolutionary stirrings in Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa's take (with the scribe returning to cut the powerful down to size after the director's All the Money in the World, just as Walker apes another famous figure after playing Anna Wintour in House of Gucci). Also in: Napoleon's tinkering with facts, which'll later see its namesake and his troops fire at the pyramids. Devotion to historical accuracy isn't the movie's aim. Like The Castle of blasts from the French past, it's more interested in the vibe of the thing — said 'thing' being how Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon I, follows his yearning for glory and adoration above all else. Scott stitches together a selection of his own recurrent obsessions, too, such as Phoenix sulking, savaging the quest for command and influence, Gallic days of yore as seen in his debut The Duellists and the unrelated The Last Duel, and unfettered ambition's consequences as per The Martian and Prometheus, then tops it with the requisite bicorn hat.

My my, in Waterloo Napoleon will eventually surrender in this 158-minute flick — which is the short version; a four-hour director's cut is on its way to Apple TV+ once the film's cinema release is done — but he has considerable battles on three fronts to wage first. The movie's 18th- and 19th-century military frays span everywhere from Toloun to Austerlitz and Borodino. The tussling that his sizeable sense of importance sparks is as inescapable as his shadow. And attempting to repair his fragility through his romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One) and desperation for a son is a conflict-filled affair again and again. When those encounters are sexual, they're filled with short, sweaty thrusts and Basic Instinct moments, as well as clashes of wills and desires. In this tumultuous marriage, food fights also feature.

So hops Napoleon from vignette to vignette, war to war, one end of the continent to the other, rise to fall, Napoleonic politics to tabloid fodder, and constant conquests to multiple exiles. So jumps Napoleon from Corsican soldier to Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim, Extrapolations)-backed force, Robespierre's (Sam Troughton, The Lazarus Project) demise to the Bonaparte brothers' coup (House of the Dragon's Matthew Needham plays Lucien), capitalising upon anti-royalist feelings to donning a crown, and triumph to capitulation. With detours for dramatic flair — and comic — here and there, the broad biographical strokes are covered, plus minutiae that paints Scott's chosen picture (including Transatlantic's Sam Crane as Jacques-Louis David painting the famed The Coronation of Napoleon picture). Bringing Wikipedia to life, petulant scowling, ample buffoonery, pining for Joséphine, sumptuous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (continuing his Scott run since Prometheus), gorgeous production design from Arthur Max (a Scott regular since GI Jane): that's the mix.

Scott slips in an early scene that sums up his approach fittingly, popping up while Napoleon is in Egypt. After a mummy is presented to the general standing upright in its propped-up sarcophagus, he hops up on a stool to stare closely at its desiccated form, expecting to divine more about it just by peering in his specific manner. Napoleon isn't shy about dehydrating its titular figure's pomp, or about its guiding force's angle. No one asks "are you not entertained?", but anticipating both Napoleon and Scott thinking that of their onlookers is easy. Seesawing between impressively staged epic spectacle and marital and regal farce, Napoleon is indeed entertaining — "you think you're so great because you have boats!" is another instantly memorable piece of dialogue, as uttered thusly — and also sprawling, grandly handsome, frequently not all-conquering enough and as on the surface as an exploded horses's insides.

As more than ABBA has immortalised, plus Succession's reference to Napoleon's severed collector's-item penis as well, Scott's subject is better-known than he ever craved, let alone could've dreamed. Depicting him as a little bit of everything in this character study is apt, then, with so much information about him existing that a definite take feels elusive. Perhaps that's why Napoleon isn't short on cinema stints but has hardly proven a mainstay, even if Louis Lumière first brought him to celluloid with 1897's Entrevue de Napoléon et du Pape and 1927's silent Napoléon has been revered for almost a century. Stanley Kubrick's iteration didn't eventuate, but is now being revived by Steven Spielberg. Charlie Chaplin's attempted project became The Great Dictator instead. The Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure version might be the take of record for many until now; Phoenix acts here like he's definitely seen it.

Napoleon's ever-committed lead is compelling to watch, but the film is best when he's part of a duo. Although the emperor ultimately divorced Joséphine when she didn't deliver him the heir that he demanded, his famous lovesickness — as letters document makes it plain that he felt that way, too. Kirby is magnetic, as the role calls for, yet also pragmatic. Her Joséphine sees him as no one else does except the movie itself,  and he is spellbound in her presence. The double-act setup also works when Napoleon is paired one-on-one with friends or foes, such as Austria's Francis I (Miles Jupp, The Full Monty) and England's Duke of Wellington (Funny Woman's Rupert Everett, also sneering and having a ball). This is a picture about a man clamouring not just for a legacy but for company, after all, and Scott never forgets it.


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